Buena Vista Social Club

Studio: The Criterion Collection

May 19, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Twenty years has passed since American musician Ry Cooder emerged from Havana with the Buena Vista Social Club album, bringing together aging and partly forgotten Cuban musicians for an unexpected smash named after a famous club that closed in the 1940s. It proved enough of a hit to tempt German filmmaker Wim Wenders to follow it a couple of years later with a documentary that itself proved spectacularly successful, sweeping up a shelf-full of awards.

Two decades hasn’t dimmed the reputation of record or film, the new Criterion release less a re-discovery and more a welcome celebration, combining the usual plethora of Criterion features (essays, audio commentary and about a thousand interviews) into one neat package.

Just like the album—not exactly the kind of material anyone would have expected to sell millions worldwide—the film falls outside usual conventions. On the surface Wenders plays with standard music documentary structures as he interviews a number of the key players in the build-up to a big show at Carnegie Hall.

Except he brushes past those same standards, trying to bring out something of the abstract feel of the music itself. The big Carnegie Hall show provides an arc of sorts, but it’s not one the film is particularly concerned with. Even if Wenders closes with live footage, he intersperses extended clips from a previous Amsterdam show, refusing to build towards a big finish.

His interviews are also difficult to pin down. People like Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer get their own segments, Buena Vista Social Club splitting them up like chapters that then merge into one another. Interviews begin and finish fluidly, scenes chopped and changed to keep momentum. There’s only a minimal exploration of individual lives and ambitions, and little beyond the occasional foray into the history of Cuban musicianship and its cultural impact. It’s as if Wenders took a quick glance at these documentary staples and realized they couldn’t tell the story.

Even this idea of telling a story is mostly redundant. Much more important is the bottling of a feeling, the evocation of time and place. Watching each member of the assembled collective strum away in private has as much importance as the opening notes of “Chan Chan” on stage, which in turn is no more important than the bewildered excitement greeting the band as they explore the gigantic proportions of New York.

It leaves a documentary occasionally hard to grasp hold of, one that works best when given into. With the camera moving gently around the stage, sitting back when the musicians sit back in private, stepping forward when they do, Buena Vista Social Club abides by the age-old dictum show not tell. The reason it still feels fresh two decades on is because it shows so well, capturing the essence of the music and wrapping it up into a visual medium to create a unique experience.


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